* Expects 217,000 tonnes in 2013 vs 149,000 tonnes in 2012
* Japan’s consumer sentiment improving - USMEF president (Adds estimate on US pork exports to Japan)
TOKYO, April 19 (Reuters) - U.S. beef exports to Japan are expected to rise about 45 percent in 2013 after Tokyo relaxed import curbs over mad cow disease in February, the head of a U.S. export group said on Friday.
Japan, the world’s third biggest economy, started accepting U.S. beef from cattle up to 30 months old on Feb. 1, a change from a 20-month limit in place since 2006.
Japan banned all U.S. beef imports when the first case of the disease was found in the United States in 2003, shutting down the U.S. industry’s largest export market, and handing Australian producers a prized new opportunity.
The age of the cow and some inner organs are considered a risk factor for mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).
The U.S. Meat Export Federation expects U.S. beef sales to Japan to rise to 217,000 tonnes in 2013, federation president Philip Seng told a news conference in Tokyo, from 149,000 tonnes in 2012.
In 2003, U.S. beef exports to Japan totalled 267,000 tonnes.
“We do see ample opportunities, especially in the yakiniku sector,” Seng said, referring to Korean-style barbecue dishes.
In February Tokyo also allowed imports of some beef parts, including T-bone steaks, from the United States.
“We’re seeing new optimism and enthusiasm,” Seng said, adding that the economic policy of growth-focused Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had been helping to improve consumer sentiment.
Last year, beef from BSE-free Australia accounted for 62 percent of Japan’s imports of 514,000 tonnes, or 220 billion yen ($2.2 billion) by value.
Annual beef demand in Japan has been steady at around 870,000 tonnes in the past couple of years, government data show, with domestically produced beef making up the deficit of roughly 350,000 tonnes, or 40 percent of the total.
As for pork, the United States is the biggest foreign supplier to Japan, which has annual demand of around 1.68 million tonnes.
The federation expects U.S. pork exports to Japan to rise 2 percent to 320,000 tonnes in 2013 from 2012, Seng said. ($1=98.2250 Japanese yen) (Reporting by Risa Maeda; Editing by Aaron Sheldrick and Clarence Fernandez)